We live in angry times.
So much of the volume is directed over the Internet, by individuals tethered by coaxial cable to a universe of other individuals. Millions of people sit in rooms by themselves venting into screen space what they never would find courage to vent if they went out into the public sphere.
Sheltered by their anonymity and fired by vitriol and bile, they tap away their anger. Off it gushes in electronic pulses, leaving no visible wake.
Supposedly we are venting to get things off our chests, to clear the air, to make ourselves heard. But the anonymity of the sending and receiving prevents real connections.
“There he goes again,” we think. “What an ass.” “How incredibly stupid!” “Whatever.”
But it doesn’t really register the way it would if you said it to someone’s face. And it doesn’t cause social argument or social change because it doesn’t engage homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) the way it has for something like 200,000 years of evolution.
The basic purpose of argument is to try to induce change in another human – to verbally convince them to do something differently, more akin to our wishes, more likely to please us. Anger plays its role in inciting argument. When someone’s behaviour angers us, we get pushed along a spectrum of responses, inducing irritation, face-to-face confrontation, verbal exchanges, best efforts at suasion and winning our points.
Winning an argument is a wonderful accomplishment. It implies that you’ve convinced someone to change their opinion; to move to shared ground; to think more like us.
When your argument fails to convince and both sides are unreconciled, you still have options. You can quit the field and find more positive outlets for your energies. You can retreat to rethink and strategize for another attempt. You can moan and groan and behave as the poor loser. Or you can escalate – fight physically for what you lost intellectually.
There’s good and bad anger, too. Good anger is used to right long-standing wrongs; bad anger is used to get even with those who quite simply are better than you, and who are perceived to be winning a battle that you’re losing – most likely for a very good reason.
In Donald Trump we have an interesting case study in the contemporary politics of anger. Arguably the most powerful person in the world because of his elected office, he chooses to use his bully pulpit to bully. He’s a master at tweeting anger to his 34 million followers (former president Barack Obama has 92 million) but he’s a most ineffective arguer.
Trump’s popularity now flutters in the mid-30 percent range and he’s reportedly not augmenting his core base of followers. He vents well to his acolytes but doesn’t effectively engage others. He plays well to conviction addicts, but he doesn’t have the style or range of argumentation to convincingly win an argument with reasoned opponents.
He’s the American poster dotard for bad anger.
I think President Trump’s public sanctioning and popularization of bad anger is dangerous. First, it’s sanctioning bad anger as a tool in argumentation. This is a response to defending the indefensible. It provides only negative options to the arguer: quitting (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement), poor loser behaviour and/or escalation to physical combat.
In Trump’s case, this could take the form of nuclear war. Or simply the extremely boring continuation of his verbal debasement of opponents: “Crooked Hillary,” “Lying Ted,” “Little (also “short and fat”) Rocket Man,” or the debasement of entire countries (e.g. Mexicans as “Drug dealers, criminals, rapists”).
The problem with Trump’s style of argumentation is that it resolves nothing. It merely continues his anger tropes. In the notable absence of any government resolution of any problem, I fear the public will increasingly take matters into their own hands. And those who argue that little or no government is the best government will aggressively cut taxes, debase Obamacare and see only the military as a valid use of tax dollars.
These are not winning strategies for the rest of us as we contemplate homo sapiens’ biggest challenges: nuclear proliferation and climate change. Sapiens arguers have arguably never been more needed.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.